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Photo: Mint

The countless untold stories of lives sent haywire by the virus

The sale of a loan is incomplete until the lender gets his money back with interest

Say the virus has got you fired or shut down your business, and besides your bare necessities, you also have an equated monthly instalment (EMI) to pay. The moratorium on loans is over, and you have to pay interest on the EMIs postponed. So you actually need to pay more, though you still earn nothing. It’s not uncommon.

Thirty years ago, I worked in the consumer finance business of a giant multinational. We financed everything from TV sets to trucks. With no electronic fund transfer system, we collected post-dated cheques from the debtor to cover the loan period. As the manager for three east Indian states, I was on the front line, both approving loans and collecting from defaulters. After all, the sale of a loan is incomplete until the lender gets his money back with interest.

Prakash Das had bought a motorcycle with a loan from us. He had been an ideal debtor for 18 months, and then he began defaulting. The EMI was 526, and four consecutive cheques had bounced. We checked the documents he had submitted when applying for the loan. His family’s financial health seemed to be fine: He worked in a jute mill, his wife in a government school, and his father in the state government. It was time to go meet him and, if necessary, seize the motorcycle. So one Sunday, a small posse—me, a junior colleague and a retired police officer we’d hired as muscle for such situations, set off for his village in Howrah district.

On the main village road, a young man on a rickshaw with a megaphone was announcing an upcoming jatra (a traditional Bengali theatre form usually enacted in the open) by a renowned Calcutta troupe. We went to the nearest tea stall and asked for directions to our customer’s house. Immediately, a man got up and asked who we were. We named our company. He asked us to come with him. On the way out, he said something to the jatra promoter on the rickshaw. This was worrying. In our business, in such situations, one needed to be alert—we were after all aliens here and the community could get hostile. But there was nothing we could do now.

“I am Prakash’s brother," said our guide. As we walked, he told us casually that he had a small shop, but because he worked for an opposition party, it had been burnt down some months ago by thugs from the ruling party. This was apparently common, but as a result, he now had no income.

We reached a recently-built house where the walls didn’t have a single coat of paint on them. s parents welcomed us graciously and seated us in the small living room. His father then explained how utterly unexpected events had changed the family’s fortunes in the last few months. His elder son’s shop was gone; s factory had shut, and his wife, whose job at the school had been a temporary one, had lost it because she was expecting; the father had retired six months back, but since he had been an honest man and never allowed anyone around him to take bribes, the clerks in his department were now exacting revenge by holding up his provident fund and pension—and all his savings had gone into building this house. There was no money left to paint the walls.

Then we saw the jatra rickshaw man flit past our door. A minute later, he appeared, and introduced himself as Das. We explained that we needed the money right now, with penal interest. “Give me three days," he said. “I’m organizing this jatra on Wednesday night, and the response is good. If it doesn’t rain, and the event goes through, I hope to make a profit of 4,000. You’ll have your money."

There was a whisper at the door. We saw a pregnant young woman, half- hidden by the curtains, beckoning to our customer. He got up, his mother came in, and three plates with a sandesh, a rosogolla and a samosa on each were placed before us. So that’s what the brother had told our man on the street—to buy sweets for us. Deeply uncomfortable, I said: “You shouldn’t spend money on us." s mother smiled and replied: “You are guests and you have come a long way. We can’t let you go without having something." The policeman muttered: “They’ve already spent the money, sir. Eat up." We ate.

As we were being seen off by the men, I said: “Till Thursday noon. Otherwise we come and take the bike." The father said: “Sir, there’s a difference between you coming and taking the bike away and my son coming to your office and handing it over. On Thursday, I promise you that he will come to your office either with the money or the bike." I knew I could trust his word.

I had never worried about the weather as much as I did that Wednesday, scanning the sky frequently for rain clouds. But it didn’t rain, and the brother came the next morning and paid up the dues with a bundle of soiled notes. Soon after this, I left the company and the city. A year later, on holiday in Calcutta, over an evening drink with an ex-colleague, I asked what had happened to the case. “Oh, he couldn’t pay," he said indifferently. “We went and seized his bike."

The events that ruined the family were totally unexpected. I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of people this out-of-the-blue virus has created. Their stories will never be told.

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